Emmys MVP: ‘Looking’ for nominations for one of TV’s best shows

Like many others, I felt an initial skepticism when “Looking” debuted on HBO in 2014: does this group of hip young urbanites truly represent me and the “gay experience”? I put that in quotes because it’s a nebulous term, suggesting a single representative idea of gay life that doesn’t really exist.

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I think such knee-jerk defensiveness is inevitable for any creative work targeted at an underserved audience. With so few opportunities to see yourself reflected in the media you consume, there’s pressure on any given project to be equally representative of all, which of course is impossible. Even the most inclusive TV show can’t be everything to everyone. Nothing good ever is. (It should be noted, though, that “Looking” has turned out to be one of TV’s most inclusive shows in terms of race, socioeconomic status, and even body type.)

My doubts faded away during the first season as I stopped looking at “Looking” for some kind of representative example and started appreciating it as a character study about specific people. In fact, newcomers to the show who want an ideal entry point should skip ahead to an episode from the middle of season one: “Looking for the Future,” which sidelines most of the supporting cast for a sublime two-hander between lovelorn yuppie Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and working-class barber Richie (Raul Castillo) that distills all of the show’s best, most observant, most empathetic qualities.

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But as good as “Looking for the Future” and the rest of the first season was, I think the series came into its own even more fully in its second year. Having introduced its cast of characters, this year the series deepened them, dealing honestly with their flaws while maintaining warmth and affection for them. It deserves Emmy nominations for Best Comedy Series, acting (especially lead Groff and supporting actors Castillo and Lauren Weedman), writing, and directing.

That’s what separates this show from a lot of programs about antiheroes and other chronically flawed protagonists: how much it genuinely seems to love them, even though it’s clear-eyed about how self-involved Patrick can be in navigating his love life, how stubborn Dom (Murray Bartlett) is during his single-minded pursuit of his restaurant business, and how self-destructive Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) has been in indulging his struggling-artist pretensions.

We don’t always agree with them or even like them, but we care about them because of how much they care about each other. Seeing their frailties through they eyes of the friends who love them is especially affecting, which is why some of the show’s best moments feature Patrick, Dom, and Agustin together.

Case in point: the second-season episode “Looking for Gordon Freeman” featured a Halloween party in which Patrick, at his lowest, gets drunk and delivers a hostile, humiliating speech. I react to scenes of public embarrassment as squeamishly as other people react to the viscera on “The Walking Dead” – I can’t look! Is it over yet? – but a moment that followed was, to me, the heart of the episode: as the extent of his humiliation sinks in, Patrick lays in Dom’s arms … and that’s it. It’s a small moment that doesn’t call attention to itself, but it encapsulates their friendship in a pure and complete way. It’s all about comfort and compassion. The show is built on moments like that.

Consider another episode, “Looking for a Plot,” whose title is perhaps a wink and a nod to the show’s loose storytelling style but actually refers to a funeral. Doris (Weedman, who adds invaluable depth and dimension to the worn-out trope of the gay man’s gal pal) learns her father has died, and she travels with Dom and Patrick to her hometown to bury him. There isn’t much incident. The episode is all about learning more about Doris and Dom, who they are, where they came from, and what they mean to each other. It’s one of the best episodes of any television series this season.

Andrew Haigh is an executive producer and the director of most of the show’s best episodes – including “Future,” “Plot,” and the second season finale “Looking for Home,” which pulled off the astounding feat of making me care deeply about a relationship I’ve actually been rooting against, between Patrick and his boss Kevin (Russell Tovey), who started their relationship while Kevin was still partnered.

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My first experience of Haigh’s work was his 2011 British film “Weekend,” starring Chris New and “Downton Abbey‘s” Tom Cullen as gay men who meet and forge an intense bond over two days before they must part ways. Looking back at that sublime film, it seems very much like a prototype for “Looking,” similar in its understated tone, insight, and intimacy.

But “Looking’s” quality hasn’t translated to ratings, and a third season isn’t guaranteed. This series could end up like “Enlightened,” cut down in its prime after two seasons that were beloved by a small but devoted fan base. I hope, though, that it turns out more like “Treme,” a superb series that never had the ratings but got four seasons to tell a complete story because HBO believed in it.

“Looking” will probably never pay the bills for the network the way “Game of Thrones” does, but I think it’s valuable for being the kind of unique, quality niche show that probably wouldn’t have a chance anywhere else. HBO, and TV in general, are better for having it on the air.

Despite their ratings struggles, “Enlightened” and “Treme” both picked up major Emmy nominations during their runs.  Let’s hope “Looking” finds what it’s looking for.

So what are the chances for this Gold Derby Emmy MVP? Let’s consider the pros and cons:

PROS:

“Looking” has passionate support from its few regular viewers. If even a fraction of TV academy members are watching, there might be enough love for it to secure a few major nominations, especially from the writers and directors branches, which have a history of supporting awards underdogs like “The Wire,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “Battlestar Galactica.”

HBO has been a powerful enough Emmys presence to earn major nominations for other underwatched shows like “Treme,” “Enlightened,” and “The Comeback.”

“Looking” would continue the recent Emmys trend of championing comedies with a strong gay presence, like “Will & Grace,” “Glee,” and “Modern Family.”

CONS:

Not many people are watching. That’s not impossible to overcome, but it never helps.

HBO already has a glut of comedies on the Emmys’ radar (“Girls,” “Veep,” “Silicon Valley“). “Looking” could be crowded out.

Other than popular lead Jonathan Groff, the series doesn’t have any A-list cast or crew members that will attract voters who often check off the names of the most recognizable stars. (Suggestion for season three: hire Alfre Woodard, Cloris Leachman, and Ellen Burstyn for guest roles.)

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